Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Defining Decade - Meg Jay

As Flying Houses continues to grow in popularity, I continue to chat about it when the people I meet appear bored.  Perhaps this talk bores them more, but some people recognize the importance of this project--which is to educate, entertain, and "endorse."  It is to write about books like Ada, or The Oath, or Red Son and to recommend them though we know of no one else who has read them yet.

With all of this in mind, I am pleased to present a new review from a new writer.  As only 18 days remain until my 30th birthday, I feel it is quite timely.  

The Defining Decade – A Review

By: J. Alexander Gibson

Like many twentysomethings, I’ve been trying to figure out how to live my life “best,” often wondering to myself, “amidoingitrite???” Do I have the right job? Why isn’t my love life more successful? Is all of this drinking, caffeine and not sleeping much going to destroy my body? So as a person with a strong proclivity for self-growth and discovery, I came across a book, which seeks to help people in my situation figure all of that out – The Defining Decade by Meg Jay.

The Defining Decade is a book that seeks to inform its readers of the importance of their twenties and how important it is to get your life on a good trajectory during that decade. Whereas current popular opinion seems to be learning towards “extended adolescence,” often claiming that it’s ok to bullshit your twenties because everything is starting later anyways (marriage, career, etc.), Meg Jay’s thesis directly contrasts that notion.  Jay boldly claims that, “With about 80 percent of life’s most significant events taking place by age thirty-five, as thirtysomethings and beyond we largely either continue with, or correct for, the moves we made during out twentysomething years.” (xii)

So pretty much, get your shit together in your twenties or else you may regret it when you’re not living a life you want to. Ms. Jay, PhD, a successful clinical psychologist who specializes in adult development (twentysomethings in particular) recounts her experiences with various patients and utilizes scientific research to back her points. She divides the books into three major sections: Work, Love, and The Brain and Body, covering the essence of the problems from which many twentysomethings suffer. 

I consider this book required reading for people in or about to be in their twenties. However, don’t expect it to immediately lead to the perfect job, significant other and/or body, but do expect that it will start getting you to reflect on your life and start thinking about what you want to do, who you want to be and how to get there. View this book as a guide to self-discovery. It’s not going to do anything directly for you—you’ll have to take it upon yourself to make positive changes in your life—but this will certainly be a first step. Also, while I certainly agree with the overall thesis of the book, please don’t let this book discourage you one bit if your twenties are coming to a close or you’re already past them. Kurt Warner (two-time Superbowl MVP) entered the NFL at the age of 28, Harland (Colonel) Sanders who has exactly zero military experience, founded KFC at 65, and a struggling carpenter named Harrison Ford got his big break at the age of 35 when he acted in the legendary movie series and mega-franchise Star Wars.   

Friday, March 29, 2013

Live Free or Die Hard - Dir. Len Wiseman (The Die Hard Project #4 - JK)

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
Director - Len Wiseman

Post 9/11 America Writ Large 
Jack Knorps

The Die Hard films have always held a special place in my heart because Die Hard with a Vengeance was the first R-rated film that I saw in the movie theater.  I would say that though the film technically qualifies for an R-rating, there is nothing so objectionable about it that should worry parents.  Of course there is gun violence, but Live Free or Die Hard is every bit as violent as its predecessor and only earns a PG-13 rating.  So this movie is okay for teens but the last one was not.  If anyone wants to write an essay about the irrationality of the MPAA, then a comparison of these two films and the stated reasons for their ratings will provide a good case study.

I saw Die Hard with a Vengeance when I was 12 and I saw Live Free or Die Hard when I was 24--both in the movie theater.  You see I loved Die Hard with a Vengeance, so I was very excited when a sequel was announced after such a long "quiet" period.  I had never even seen the first two Die Hards.  Later I would move to Los Angeles and watch Die Hard from a small apartment in Silver Lake,  during a time when I would often travel to the Nakatomi Plaza location (Century City) for job interviews.  That film was ahead of its time in 1988 (except perhaps for the reference to "poison pills"--those were soooooo 1985), and its sequel was "with the times" in 1990, and Die Hard with a Vengeance was also current with populist American sentiment in 1995.  The five-year wait for that film seemed long, but the 12 year wait for this one seemed to signal a break in tradition.  Now with a six-year gap for A Good Day to Die Hard, the franchise seems to have a questionable boom-and-bust cycle.

But Live Free or Die Hard is no bust--in fact, I was trying to rank the films on my own, and it is near the top.

#1: Die Hard with a Vengeance
#2: Die Hard
#3: Live Free or Die Hard 
#4: Die Harder
#5: A Good Day to Die Hard (?)

I leave the question mark because I've yet to see it, but yes, it was hard for me to choose between this film and the original as the second-best film in the series--but it cannot touch Vengeance.

Die Hard wins out in second-place because of Alan Rickman's performance, the originality of the film at the time, and the excellent use of Christmas music.  Timothy Olyphant is passable as this film's villain, but ultimately cannot stand in the shoes of Rickman or Jeremy Irons--who deserves to be named one of the top five villains in the history of cinema for his performance in that film.

My colleague Mr. Maronde pointedly argued that Die Hard with a Vengeance is a beautiful film because it is an ode to New York City at the height of its 1990s splendor.  Live Free or Die Hard is a reaction to 9/11, and certainly some of the images of this film are so strong that it easily lands in 3-star territory (you must admit that the "hoax" in this film--which could be a clever commentary on the Separation of Powers and the ultimate wielder of governmental authority in America--had you fooled the first time, too).  Olyphant plays a nerdy former government contractor in homeland security.  He conducts a "fire sale" (I will not define the term) and the scale of this endeavor is also what takes the movie to 3-star territory: this is certainly the most audacious act of terrorism that the Die Hard movies have portrayed yet.

The Die Hard films always seem to have thieves posing as terrorists--and this one is no different, except you have thieves posing as "potential" terrorists--Olyphant believes his actions are justified because he is showing the government what it did not want to know--that the entire domestic infrastructure could be hacked, creating real chaos.

John McClane is, for some reason, hanging out in a college parking lot, spying on his daughter making out with another dude.  His daughter is Lucy Gennaro (not McClane) and her parents have divorced since the last film (or were they already divorced in 1995?  I can't be sure...).  He's still a cop for the NYPD but certainly appears to be approaching retirement.  He gets a random phone call after scaring his daughter's boyfriend and is told to go pick up a college kid played by Justin Long.

Justin Long may be controversial (a very funny moment of this film shows him with a very high-tech cell phone in 2007--it flips so you can text!) for his work in Apple commercials, but he won me over with this movie.  I always found him to be an annoying hipster-ish persona--the perfect image of a Mac User--but he does not act like such a smartypants in this movie.  Oh there is a moment where he explains why he doesn't listen to the news and he makes fun of what Bruce Willis likes to listen to on the radio, but he is quickly brought back to planet Earth as he is nearly killed a dozen or more times.

In terms of "sidekicks," Al is the best sidekick John McClane has (Samuel L. Jackson is #2, and probably the only problem with Die Hard with a Vengeance is that their "buddy-buddy" quality is, at times, feigned or uneven), and Justin Long is passable.  In general this is a very "passable" film, but politically it is the most interesting.

It beautifully depicts the paranoia of the post-9/11 world and (I really believe) is prophetic.  This film was released in May 2007.  In other words, it was released right at the time the markets were about to go bust, and the "thieves" in this film certainly have an analogue in the real life robber barons on Wall Street.  One is intrigued by the prospect of A Good Day to Die Hard (terrible reviews notwithstanding) as each film tends to react towards recent domestic trends in politics (Die Hard = corporate raiding; Die Harder = ?; Die Hard with a Vengeance = racism; Live Free or Die Hard = e-terrorism/Anonymous-style hackery; A Good Day to Die Hard = ? (economic desperation?)).

Len Wiseman does not have a vision quite like John McTiernan (who directed the two best films in the series) but he made a movie that was fun to go see in the movie theater.  I had about as much fun seeing this PG-13 movie as I did that R-rated movie some twelve years earlier.

And the Kevin Smith cameo is priceless.  Anytime you have Bruce Willis checking out a poster and Kevin Smith asking him, "You a fan of the Fett?" you have automatically made a good movie.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Die Hard 3: With a Vengeance - Dir. John McTiernan (The Die Hard Project #3 - JM)

Die Hard: With A Vengeance (1995)
Dir: John McTiernan

A New York Minute From a Very Special Time
By Jay Maronde 
                While Die Hard 3 may be on network television somewhat regularly, it’s unlikely anyone will ever see the full version of the movie ever again, even if it's shown on cable. The reason for this is not the language but the fact that the world has changed and we as Americans no longer wish to see the movie’s biggest star in her full glory. Wait you say, Die Hard is a guy movie, who is this ultra-famous lady star—a star bigger than Bruce or Samuel L.? This Grande Dame of Stars I reference is none other than pre-9-11 New York City herself, and peaking in her Clinton/Giuliani era glory!
In this film, just like real estate, location is everything, and rarely has any movie highlighted so many of NYC’s glorious locations as Die Hard 3, and the grandest /saddest NYC site of all is featured heavily from beginning to end: The World Trade Center. As I’ve already mentioned, this is the part(s) of the movie that requires so much editing for American audiences today, and it’s tragic because the film highlights the towers so beautifully and epically that they really should be appreciated in their once towering glory. This isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have very, very big movie stars, a great director, fantastic action sequences or one of the cleverest plots ever—because surely it does—but in the end, this movie is just as much a wonderful NYC movie as it is a classic of the action genre.
                DH3 opens with a fantastic panorama of NYC perfectly set to the classic “Summer in The City.” As the song ends, a building explodes, and the terrorism has begun. Soon we are transported to a busy police station where the emergency response is being coordinated. Suddenly a secretary has a phone call that the boss needs to answer. On the line is the lead terrorist, played exquisitely by the robust Jeremy Irons in one of his greatest roles ever. As the audience, we only learn much later that the Irons character, Simon, is really the brother of the original Die Hard villain Hans Gruber.  Not only is Simon intent on mayhem, but he demands that a suspended (and terribly hung-over) Lt. John McClane be part of the fun. 
As the movie progresses the viewer learns the just like his brother, Simon isn’t as much of a terrorist as a thief with a very clever ruse. Simon’s first task is for John McClane to go to Harlem and walk the street naked except for a sandwich board that reads: “I HATE NIGGERS.” This bit here is regularly edited for television.  In fact the director had the forethought to film the scene twice—once using another sandwich board that read: “I HATE PEOPLE”—and while this early scene is just a shot across the bow in McTiernan’s masterpiece of an everyman questioning 1990’s American racial issues, it serves to perfectly introduce the films other co-star: the always compelling Samuel L. Jackson as the helpful racist, Zeus Carver. Carver leaves his shop to help McClane (whom he believes to be an escaped mental patient) and is quickly drawn into Simon’s games. The movie progresses all the way across Manhattan from top to bottom and then back to the top, through the Bronx, parts of Westchester, and ultimately ends with in epic helicopter battle in which John McClane once again gets to declare “yippe-ki-yay motherfucker” while sending the villain to an ugly demise.
                DH3’s lead actors are beyond reproach. All three of these gentlemen (Willis, Jackson, and Irons) are remarkably good in their roles. Irons could easily be one of the best villains all time in this role. His acting talent shines so remarkably because at several points he is playing Simon Gruber acting like someone else, be it the mentally unstable terrorist personality he feigns during his phone calls with the NYPD, his acting as a Dutch flower company CEO, or even his feigned Elvis Duran fan/radio caller.  (That is really the real Elvis Duran, playing himself, by the way.) Irons shines throughout the whole movie as he torments McClane and Carver.
Willis and Jackson for their parts are no less amazing. Samuel L. Jackson is probably the pre-eminent casting choice for a disaffected angry Harlem resident whose hatred for white people is so great, it’s “uber-racism.” Bruce Willis, in his third appearance as John McClane, perfected his role as the loose cannon everyman cop kicking ass through a “very bad day.” To be honest, Willis is so amazingly spot-on good at being John McClane that I’m always completely shocked that he ever gets cast for any other roles. (Nothing against Bruce at all, it would just be really cool if they were about to release Die Hard 42, because apparently I’m the only one who never gets tired of these movies, ever.)
My one and only complaint about this film, is that by having removed John McClane’s family from the situation, the movie seems to lose some of its tension being caused by McClane’s desperation. This is no one’s fault, as a crux of the plot is McClane’s status as “one step away from being a full blown alcoholic” due to his estrangement from his wife. This changes the movie slightly from a man trying to save his family to a buddy action flick. Here again is time to sing the praises of Willis and Jackson as two better “buddies” cannot be found in all of American cinema.
Everyone knows that you can have all the greatest actors in the world but without a director you still won’t get a good movie at all. In Die Hard 3, John McTiernan has returned to the classic franchise he helped begin two films earlier and is more outstanding than ever. This movie is excellently planned. From the editing, to the foreshadowing, to the tie-in with previous films in the series, everything about this film fits perfectly together in just such a clever way that it always brings a smile to my face. McTiernan continues to explore the character of the everyman super hero in John McClane this time not only taking on a whole city instead of just a building or an airport, but also through questioning many social mores of the time period. For a movie filmed in the time of race riots, DH3 tackles the race issue head on and has John McClane saying what many average Caucasian folk at that time were thinking: “You’re a racist, you don’t like me because I’m white!” McTiernan, with his “down under” Aussie-approach to American culture didn’t hesitate for a moment in tackling the biggest issues of the time, and he did it with two of the biggest stars at the time. These are the moments in history that drastically alter everyone’s perceptions of race and culture by holding up a mirror to reality and showing us all what we’ve become. By forcing the racist Carver to deal with the stodgy McClane because “This guy (the terrorist) doesn’t care about race” McTiernan was holding up a torch for the people of the world to unite in their shared humanity and hatred of terrorism.
These racial “semi-tones,” while shockingly predictive of a post 9-11 world, aren’t the only triumph of McTiernan in this film—his foreshadowing is exquisite. Please note the scene early on while McClane is in the police van, which is possibly some of the best foreshadowing in Hollywood history.  This one scene sets up so many of the plot points utterly essential for later in the movie, I won’t spoil it, but pay careful attention to what could have been a completely throw away scene.  McTiernan’s directorial genius doesn’t stop there: he twice very covertly alludes to the original Die Hard. First, just outside of Tompkins Square Park when McClane stops the shoplifting youths and is told: “Look around, man! It’s Christmas. You could steal City Hall.”  The “it’s Christmas” is a very careful word choice to help remind the viewers and McClane that not only was the original movie also a heist but also happened on Christmas. My other favorite indirect allusion to the original film occurs when McClane is investigating the Federal Reserve Bank and just as in the original Die Hard a covert terrorist gives himself away with un-American speech patterns.
As I mentioned in the introduction to this piece the real star of this entire movie is the grand city of New York in all of its stunning pre 9-11 glory. First and foremost, I want to say again that we as a people cannot let the terrorists win and happily strike the image of one of the modern wonders of the world from our collective social conscious in some lame apologist attempt to preserve “feelings.” Everyone has very strong feelings about the WTC and 9-11 and I as a writer am no different; I can tell you for a fact that I considered this review long and hard because of The Towers and the fact that I was there and saw it all go down in mind-scarring reality. Personally I will always choose to remember the resilient carefree pre-9-11 NYC that McClane ferociously and triumphantly fights to save before I will concede the horrible realities that terrorism and the police surveillance state have brought upon us all.
All of this being said, NYC is in her finest glory in this film. The movie features not only the WTC, but Wall Street, Harlem, Yankee Stadium, Central Park, Columbus Circle, the real Tompkins Square park (always one of my favorites being some of my old stomping grounds) the real 72nd Street subway station, but also the streets and avenues and traffic, and the real “summer in the city” feel that only NYC can provide. The movie plays it real too: 72nd Street to Wall Street in less than half an hour is a miracle, and just for reference: the aqueduct is real too, even though tunnel 3 is now completely finished and functioning.
Die Hard 3 is a great movie about 2 great heroes fighting their way through what could easily be history’s greatest city (come at me Rome and London). The acting, directing, and locations are epic and this movie should be recognized as one of the finest action movies ever made, and McTiernan hereby cements his place as one of the greatest action directors with this piece. Jackson and Willis, reunited for the first time since their gripping performances in Pulp Fiction, continue to carve out their places in Hollywood history. Jeremy Irons raises the bar for all action movie villains to an incredibly high place with his multifaceted and grimly sardonic performance. All and all not just a movie to see for cinema’s sake, but a film to enjoy because movies are great in the way that they can take us back to times and places that no longer exist all while having a great experience.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Disrobed: The New Battle Plan to Break the Left's Stranglehold on the Courts - Mark W. Smith (incomplete)

Note: This is Not the "Disrobed" Written by Judge Block, and I Would Much Rather Read that One
by Jack Knorps

Perhaps the problem with America is that we don't really give deference to the voices that speak in opposition to ours.  It pains me, greatly, to leave that scarlet word "incomplete" in the title of this post (I  have not had an "I" since Proust, je pense) but Mark W. Smith is no Mark E. Smith and I can hardly bear to waste anymore of my time reading this book.  I got through 33 pages.  I thought it would be a fun review to write, but I was wrong.

I have written at length on the "right" and the "left" swinging of the Court, but this book is a waste of my time because it is dated!  It was published in 2006.  If Smith did not get his wish then I'm sorry for him, but from his writing he appears to be an extremely radical conservative.

In the basement of the Brooklyn Law School library, there is some graffiti in the men's bathroom.  In the handicapped stall somebody wrote, "My s*** feels like: -a Scalia opinion (painful and offensive)."  I don't know who wrote that (it wasn't me--Scalia actually amuses me more often than not and I find him to be charmingly erudite, if politically "unattractive"), but if they are a terrorist then we should find him and torture him by forcing him to read this book.  That would be perfectly constitutional, actually. (I think.)

This book is dated because it opens up with Smith's Blackberry blowing up over Harriet Miers' failed appointment to the Court to replace Justice O'Connor (how charming to think, by the way, that there might have been a Justice Miers rather than a Justice Alito--Alito may be just about as conservative as you can get before entering lunatic land, but he is a much better writer than Smith--more respectable, at least).

This book has a chapter called "No More Souters."  I can guess what it says.  I didn't get that far, nor did I get to the titillatingly-titled fourteenth chapter, "Do You Sodomize Your Wife?" I made it to the first mention of Justice Douglas and Justice Brennan, and I stopped:

"Just look at how liberal justices decided when to use the power of the courts--and when not to.  In Williamson v. Lee Optical (1955), for example, the Supreme Court upheld an Oklahoma law preventing opticians, as opposed to licensed optometrists or ophthalmologists, from fitting lenses to eyeglasses.  In short, the Court rejected any suggestion that opticians or their patients had a right to enter into a voluntary economic transaction without the blessing of the state.  In his opinion, Justice William O. Douglas concluded, 'The day is gone when this Court uses the [Constitution] to strike down state laws, regulatory of business and industrial conditions, because they may be unwise, improvident, or out of harmony with a particular school of thought...."For protection against abuses by legislatures the people must resort to the polls, not to the Courts."' (emphasis added).
Yet it was the very same Justice Douglas who a decade later wrote the majority opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut, striking down laws that restricted the sale of contraceptives.  Apparently, in the eyes of Justice Douglas, only economic conservatives needed to 'resort to the polls' when government regulators curtailed their liberties; social liberals could absolutely resort to the courts 'for protection against abuses by legislatures.'  Justice Douglas and the rest of his left-wing cronies on the high court obviously took to heart Emerson's line that 'a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.'
Liberal justice William Brennan approved of the same double standard.  As constitutional scholar Bernard Schwarz explained, Brennan practiced 'judicial deference in the economic realm' but 'believed that the Bill of Rights provisions protecting personal liberties imposed more active obligations on the judges.  When a law infringed upon the personal rights the Bill of Rights guaranteed, Brennan refused to defer to the legislative judgment that the law was necessary.'
Why should Justice Brennan defer to government actions in the economic realm but not in the social or personal realm?  What about the constitutional guarantees to the right to keep the fruits of your own labor?  Did the Framers of the Constitution jettison the original Articles of Confederation to guarantee the 'fundamental' and 'unalienable' rights to abortion and buggery and the right to be free from hearing the words 'under God' uttered in the Pledge of Allegiance?" (31-32)

Actually Douglas used the words "the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment," which, yes, is part of the Constitution, but does not comprise the entirety of its text.  And Smith perhaps does not seem to worry about rogue "eye doctors" that would create things like the Opti-Grab and make people go cock-eyed.  But plenty of people try to practice law without a license.  I am sure that Smith would not worry about rogue "baby doctors" that would perform "back-alley abortions with coat hangers"--no, we can have every baby carried to term, and if the mother is irresponsible, well she can put it up for adoption, I guess.  Shame on her--she should at least need to suffer for 9 months and we should DEFINITELY BRING MORE PEOPLE INTO THIS WORLD BECAUSE IT'S GREAT!

Writing this review is like shooting fish in a barrel.  The part about Romer v. Evans is priceless.  Jeffrey Toobin may write books about the Court that read like "Con Law for Dummies," but Disrobed is truly written for the lowest common denominator--that is, someone that does not consider the other side's position because they know they're right.

It is quite funny, however, to think of this book as dated though it was published just seven short years ago.  Smith probably blew his brains out when Obama won the election and put Sotomayor and Kagan on the Court.  Or at least he probably got really bad migraines for a while.

I am guessing, however, that Smith did not lose very much money in the Great Depression, Part Two (the first of which he asserts was drawn out--not ameliorated--by the New Deal), but he does believe that allowing banks to fail back in the day was a bad thing--not sure how he could get what he wants.  Reading this is like listening to Rush Limbaugh.  One is saddened that people who are obviously capable of publishing a book, or speaking for hours on end and entertaining millions of people, can have their voices heard so loudly, and can propagate such myths and fool the masses into believing whatever sounds good for their agenda

I love the part in Romer v. Evans where Scalia references the Chicago Cubs (I think I have written about this on Flying Houses several times before) and talks about how gay law schools are.  I had to skip ahead to "No More Souters" to make sure that Smith was not in fact gay because then he might actually be ridiculously clever--but I guess I am wrong:

"But now we know the kinds of judges we need to look for--principled conservatives who want to protect traditional American rights and values and who will focus on results rather than merely process--how do we find our Judicial Reagans?  As any of my ex-girlfriends can tell you (and certainly as any of Bill Clinton's can), a woman knowing what she wants in a man is a far cry from her actually finding one who meets those criteria.  It's the same with conservatives who are selecting judges: There's no guarantee we'll appoint Judicial Reagans just because we have certain qualities in mind." (124)

I have a serious problem with people that like drama for the sake of drama or fighting for the sake of fighting.  There is a book called "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace" and Justice Douglas made a similar point in Points of Rebellion: let us keep fighting because we don't know what else we are supposed to do with ourselves.  There is a civil war going on in this country, but it is hidden, and for good reason: it would tear families apart.  Many of my friends are conservatives--or libertarians--which I believe is just code for "reputable Republican."  Smith repeatedly refers to the "loony left."  But writers like him give Republicans a bad name.  I can agree to disagree, but I am not going to write an entire book accusing my enemies of being insane and taking the Supreme Court to task.  It's a foolish endeavor.  It has been foolish for me to read this book and waste my time with it.

I will say that the book--while written extremely poorly--at least uses pretty decent grammar.  It is more than I could say for Pygmy, but I am sure that even the "terrorist kid" in that book (or whatever he is) is a nicer person than Smith seems to be.

"Do You Sodomize Your Wife?" was apparently asked to Justice Scalia at NYU Law.  Smith says that Scalia "does not argue that sodomy is good or bad, fun or unfun, moral or immoral, or anything of the kind.  He instead believes only that such questions should be resolved through the democratic process, not by a small cadre of unelected judges."  (210)

That may be so but Smith does not give Scalia's answer to that question, which was probably quite witty--instead, Smith just calls the question an "intellectually vapid query" and focuses on the question itself rather than the answer: which is that Congress does not equal Democracy--Congress may be called democracy but it should be clear to any high school student that the democratic process is controlled by moneyed interests and the Court is really our last resort to protect against tyranny--and moneyed interests do not always respond to the increasingly diverse needs of Americans.  I personally prefer a world where I have a choice between The Strand, Barnes & Noble, and Borders, but I guess I'll probably be able to find something decent at Barnes & Noble anyways....

I have said all I can about this book.  I regret checking it out because it forces me to make a terribly unattractive statement: it's okay to stop reading a book if you think it sucks (or if it just makes you so angry that you feel you have wasted your time).  Now I really have to go study Crim Pro, Sec Reg, Tax, the MPRE, and whatever other fun stuff I do.  Luckily I do not need to "take a side" in these activities.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Oath - Jeffrey Toobin

The Nine: The Sequel
by Jack Knorps

The Nine  was a difficult book to review because I deigned to describe each Justice.  While it was a terrific book, and more even-handed than The Brethren, I criticized the amount of material the author included on Supreme Court appointments and Bush v. Gore.  Toobin has, in fact, written an entire other book on the subject (Too Close to Call), and I do not think I will be reading that.  However, I have heard good things about The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson and would consider reading that.  Toobin is a talented writer, and at times the words flow off the page.  He is a "quality author."  

That being said, The Oath is a better book than The Nine though there is almost nothing to distinguish the two from one another.  True, The Nine was about the period between 1993 and 2005--the longest period in which the same nine justices served together, and there is more material because the "length of the story" is longer.  The Oath is about the period between 2005 and 2012 (though primarily '08-'12) and clocks in at a perfect length of 300 pages.

A friend recently asked me what the perfect length for a book was.  It is a hard question and depends on the book but I have to say now that it is between 250 and 300 pages.

And I have to say that, though my review of The Nine (published January 1, 2012) was probably not read by Toobin himself, it is almost as if Toobin took my criticisms to heart and wrote a better book, substantially similar though it may be.

It is a subject that is hard to write about briefly.  The Brethren was very long, too.  So much has happened, but when we last left off, I had reviewed Five Chiefs and was bemoaning the Conservative Court--that is, the moment Justice Thomas replaced Justice Marshall (not the moment Justice Souter replaced Justice Brennan): the Court seemed like it was "fixed."

However, The Oath makes the point more than once that Justice Stevens, Justice O'Connor, and Justice Souter were all Republicans, and slowly but surely became part of the "liberal wing" of the Court.  I don't think this point can be emphasized enough.  If you look at the Court, you are looking at a group of extremely distinguished individuals, some of the most intelligent professionals in America.  That three of them abandoned their former party highlights my distaste for the conservative movement.  Toobin, I would imagine, shares this view.

When I reviewed The Nine I provided snippets about each Justice, and it was an extremely long review.  I will do my best to stick to the highlights in this review.  

The book is divided into five parts.  Part One focuses on Obama, his election, and the Court as it stood when he took office.  Part Two focuses on Second Amendment concerns and introduces Justice Sotomayor.  Part Three is basically about Citizens United.  Part Four introduces Justice Kagan.  Part Five is basically about the Affordable Care Act cases.  Oh and Part One also discusses Stern v. Marshall (briefly).  

Unlike Bush v. Gore, Citizens United and the ACA cases (which I wrote an extensive article and roadmap on) are both extremely interesting cases.  So obviously I like those parts.  Part One is good because it tells us some thing about Barack Obama that, shockingly, we probably did not know:
he went to law school when he was my age:

"His life as a public figure began in 1990, when he was twenty-eight and won election as president of the Harvard Law Review, the first African American to hold that position.  Obama practiced law for a dozen years and taught at the University of Chicago Law School for nearly as long.  But by the time he ran for president, Obama was above all a politician, and a cautious one.  Obama admired the heroes of the civil rights movement, including the lawyers, but he did not model his career on theirs.  Obama did not believe the courts were the principal vehicle for social and political change.  Elections, rather than lawsuits, were his battlefield of choice, and by 2008 he knew that the way to win the presidency was, in part, to embrace the individual rights theory of the Second Amendment." (22)

The Oath is quite timely but Toobin might revise that last sentence in light of the events that have transpired over the past four months.  We are living in an increasingly insane world where people are isolated and would rather go out in a blaze of glory and kill dozens of innocent people than attempt to grab that increasingly fictitious concept known as the "American Dream."  Chief Justice Roberts and Barack Obama, one might say, are both "living the dream"--but it would be wrong to say they are totally happy and their lives are perfect:

"Near the end of his memoir Dreams from My Father, which he published when he was thirty-three, Obama reflected on his education at Harvard Law School.  His tone was ambivalent.  'The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality; a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power--and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition.'  Then, in a gesture that was common in the book, and in Obama's character, he gave the other side of the story: 'But that is not all the law is,' he continued.  'The law is also memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience.'" (22-23)

The reason why I have no respect for republicans is because they lambast Obama as if he was the worst president ever and they have absolutely no idea what he has come up against.  Basically, whoever became president in 2008 needed to be FDR in order not to look like a douchebag.  Obama is not FDR.  People generally consider Lincoln the greatest President.  FDR is often near the top of the list, too.  For me, Obama is number three.  Some people put Kennedy up in the top five, but I'm not sure I could (shockingly I might even put Nixon above Kennedy).  I don't want to get into word games but I think Chief Justice Warren was probably the greatest Chief Justice (and Scott Brown took Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts) and in three years, in my fantasy world, a different Warren could potentially be the greatest President, too.  

You can't blame Obama for putting Sotomayor and Kagan on the Court.  Sotomayor has recently become popular for putting out a book of her own--and she claims that Obama's book greatly inspired her.  It is quite shocking, though, to think of Chief Justice Roberts.  I made this point in The Brethren review, but I'll make it again: it is such a better job than President!  He could be Chief Justice for like, twenty-five, maybe thirty years.  Clearly, the Justices are the ones that see the change in the country more clearly than anyone else. 

I basically hate Chief Justice Roberts because he is so perfect:

"There was never a student like John Roberts at the La Lumiere School in LaPorte, Indiana, a quiet town near Lake Michigan, on the outer edges of the gravitational pull of Chicago.  It was a Catholic school, but it was independent of any order or diocese; the founders, all laymen, built the institution around an ideal of academic excellence.

"Roberts was not just the valedictorian of the class of 1973.  He served as captain of the football team, a varsity wrestler, member of both the student council and the drama club.  (He played Peppermint Patty in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown; the school was all boys in Roberts's day.) He continued taking Latin, as a tutorial, after the school dropped the language as a requirement...." (8)

Toobin goes on to explain Roberts's excellent memorization skills and how ironic it was then that he messed up on The Oath that he gave to Obama at his inauguration.  But there is something sinister about Roberts's perfection: he is too much like Kennedy (except not quite as well-to-do from birth) and his conservatism is blind to the problems of society's have-nots.  However, he did get one case right--and it was an important one.

Toobin covers the drama around the Affordable Care Act and the various legal challenges to it in an economical and entertaining fashion.  The same goes for Citizens United.  Thus, Part Three and Part Five are excellent reading for law students.  (Citizens United is only really studied, however, in classes on First Amendment Law and Campaign Finance law--it doesn't affect Americans as individuals as broadly as the ACA--but it has enormous philosophical implications: read thought control).  What is most upsetting about Citizens United is that we never got to read Souter's dissent:

"The new majority opinion--which transformed Citizens United into a vehicle for rewriting decades of constitutional law--shocked the liberals.  Stevens assigned the main dissent to Souter, who was in the last weeks of his tenure on the Court. (He was actually working on the opinion when he announced his departure.) The Kennedy opinion reflected everything Souter had come to loathe about the Roberts Court--its disrespect for precedent, its grasping conservatism, its aggressive pursuit of political objectives.  Worse yet, Robert's approach to Citizens United contradicted a position he had taken earlier in the term.  At the argument of a death penalty case known as Cone v. Bell, Roberts had berated at length, the defendant's lawyer, Thomas Goldstein, for his temerity in raising an issue that had not been addressed in the briefs.  Now Roberts--the chief justice--was doing precisely the same thing to upset decades of settled expectations.  

"Souter wrote a dissent that aired some of the Court's dirty laundry.  By definition, dissents challenge the legal conclusions of the majority, but Souter accused Kennedy and Roberts of violating the Court's own procedures to engineer the result Roberts coveted.  The dissent, had it been published, would have been an extraordinary, bridge-burning farewell to the Court by Souter." (168)

But "The Ninety-Page Swan Song of John Paul Stevens" is a pretty good thing to read, too. I have written at length on Justice Stevens and how he is my second-favorite Supreme Court justice so I will not add much, except that next time I go to Chicago I will take a picture:

"....Still, the family never recovered its former wealth, and it lost control of the hotel. (It is now known as the Chicago Hilton and Towers; the 'S' is still there.)" (187)

This book is not quite as gossipy as The Brethren but it is more gossipy than The Nine.  In The Nine Toobin makes some pretty incredible statements about Justice Thomas, but in The Oath he makes Thomas out to be some kind of enormous evil genius/fool.  I do not even want to repeat what Toobin wrote about Thomas (this is why I think writers are the only more hated group than lawyers: if I were Thomas I would go kick Toobin's ass for the things he suggests and reveals).  But now I know that "Lady Kaga" is not, in fact, gay, so I make this plea:
Dear Justice Kagan,

I know that you probably get lots of date offers but I want to ask you out.  I am a 29-year-old law student and that means there is only about 23 years separating us.  That is less than the difference between Justice Douglas and some of his wives.  I promise you that, if you give me a chance, I will be a good and loyal partner to you, and help you achieve whatever it is you hope to do in this life.  I will never "leak" anything.  I am a good cook and would make a great stay-at-home dad.  I also have a tremendous singing voice, and am a soon-to-be-acclaimed filmmaker.  

If you'd like, I would be your law clerk for a year if you wanted to test me out.  If that's too much trouble, I understand (my credentials are nowhere near as impressive as Sparkle's), but if you just want to grab dinner sometime and see if we'd get along, that could be really cool.  I'll take the Bolt Bus down to D.C. and meet you some Friday evening when you get off work.  I'd even be willing to pick up the tab!  Please respond via comment if you are so interested. (And yes I am being totally serious.)  
Kagan also apparently kicked a 20-year cigarette habit.  On that note, I am going out to have one....

Kagan was also a classmate and friend of Toobin's.  He can't recuse himself from writing this book, but it highlights his own achievements.  While I don't necessarily agree with some of his statements (for example, that Justice O'Connor is "the most influential woman in American history" (207)) The Oath is more often than not, erudite and sensitive to the political climate of our nation's capital:

"Stewart [not Potter-Ed.] was wrong.  Congress could not ban a book.  McCain-Feingold was based on the pervasive influence of television advertising on electoral politics, the idea that commercials are somehow unavoidable in contemporary American life.  The influence of books operates in a completely different way.  Individuals have to make an affirmative choice to acquire and read a book.  Congress would have no reason, and no justification, to ban a book under the First Amendment." (166)

It is an important book that everyone should read. (Many will not because reading about law is boring--and honestly, having studied the law for the past two-and-a-half years, sometimes I just don't want to read about all of those Commerce Clause cases over and over again...) It also taught me how to correctly use parenthetical sentences, so it may improve your writing also (though I would hardly call this review one of my finest moments).  

Basically, if you are pressed for time, read The Oath.  Then, if you want, you can read The Nine for the sake of nostalgia.  The only problem with this book is that it preempts its prequel.  But a lot of people still prefer the first Back to the Future to the second one.  I would imagine the debate between fans of those two movies is quite similar to the debate that fans of these two books would have: it largely depends on how accurate their vision of 2015 will be.  I, for one, hope that there is another Warren on the way to "reshape" American society, and not another Clinton.